Cycle psychologist: Driver aggression still needs to be understood

And hi-visibility clothing is just another stick to beat cyclists around the head with, he says

by Sarah Barth   October 13, 2012  

Cyclists at traffic lights (©Toby Jacobs)

The reasons behind driver aggression towards cyclists is unknown and cannot be accounted for with normal pyschological explanations, a prominent social psychologist has said.

Dr Walker, who has blogged for road.cc, studies the social mechanisms underpinning aggression towards cyclists, and is famous for a study in which he cycled in a helmet, and again in a blonde wig, pretending to be a woman.

He has looked at reasons why motorists might display aggression towards cyclists, including minority social status and perhaps 'infantile' cycling.

"But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience," said Dr Walker.

"It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example.

"So there’s clearly one or more important variables that we’ve not identified yet. Any social psychologists looking for a challenge are very welcome to wade into this."

Dr Walker explains that, as there is no one reason to cycle, thus there is no one cycling infrastructure solution.

He says: "Some of the work we’ve done at Bath lately, most notably by my PhD student Gregory Thomas, shows that some people really value fresh air and exercise such that, if they were unable to cycle, they would walk.

"Others are cycling for speed and, if for some reason had to change mode, would drive.

"Because people are doing the same behaviour with different motivations, you can’t expect them all to accept the same infrastructure provision – the person who just wants exercise might tolerate stopping at every sidestreet but the person who wants to get to work quickly will not."

Psychologically, he says, there are reasons why cyclists are often injured going straight on when a vehicle turns left.

He says: "The hypothesis is that drivers don’t expect to encounter cyclists at junctions and so their visual search patterns go to the parts of the road where cars and trucks are to be found, skipping the parts of the road where cyclists (and, to an extent, motorcyclists) are found."

And what's more, cyclists just can't get it right when it comes to what to wear.

He says: "the visibility of riders depends very heavily on the background they happen to be passing at any given moment: if you’re riding in front of a white house it’s far better to wear black than so-called ‘high-visibility’ gear.

"To a psychologist, it's pretty obvious that visual contrast between figure and ground, rather than the rider’s clothes per se, is what will matter. But this seems to be a difficult message for wider audiences to swallow – they won't let go of the idea that ‘high-visibility’ clothing is always the best thing.

"Incidentally, there are other reasonsto be suspicious of high-visibility gear, not least that it transfers responsibility from the driver of the metal box that creates the danger to the victim of that danger."

Dr Walker puts forward a suggestion too for greater care in motorist-cyclist interactions: education.

He says: "If ... cyclists’ problem is that other road-users don’t know what it is like to be a cyclist – and there are qualitative data to suggest it does – then perhaps we might solve many problems by increasing drivers’ understanding.

"Compulsory cycling as part of driver training would be an ideal solution."

To read the interview in full, click here.

 

25 user comments

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"Because people are doing the same behaviour with different motivations, you can’t expect them all to accept the same infrastructure provision – the person who just wants exercise might tolerate stopping at every sidestreet but the person who wants to get to work quickly will not."

Actually this is not accurate.

If you provide excellent infrastructure that feels safe, allows different speeds, has appropriate priority, is convenient and direct then probably almost all cyclists will use it (just as they do in the Netherlands).

It is only true to say "you can’t expect them all to accept the same infrastructure provision" when you are talking about poor infrastructure (surely by definition it is poor if not all people on bikes want to use it).

Dave

posted by Dave42W [27 posts]
13th October 2012 - 17:21

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I have some theories that it's related to anxiety or stress, drivers realising the risks involved, time pressures and maybe also feeling pressure from other drivers, ultimately resulting in fight or flight response, when patience is what is needed. When looking for a reason for this reaction, they will try to justify it by claiming the road is for cars, since this belief and failing to adjust behaviour for other road users created the anxiety and conflict in the first place.

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posted by the_mikey [146 posts]
13th October 2012 - 17:35

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Dave42W wrote:

Actually this is not accurate.

If you provide excellent infrastructure that feels safe, allows different speeds, has appropriate priority, is convenient and direct then probably almost all cyclists will use it (just as they do in the Netherlands).
Dave

I disagree - I'm with the good Dr on this one. I ride to work, with my family and for sport and pointing to Dutch style paths wouldn't be appealing for all these purposes.

It also rankles when Holland is referenced all the time - yes it has a great infrastructure but its a tiny country with little in common to the UK and Amsterdam is no London.

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posted by TheHatter [810 posts]
13th October 2012 - 18:00

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Dave42W wrote:

"Because people are doing the same behaviour with different motivations, you can’t expect them all to accept the same infrastructure provision – the person who just wants exercise might tolerate stopping at every sidestreet but the person who wants to get to work quickly will not."

Actually this is not accurate.

Back to English comprehension class for you Wink

What he's saying is different users have a differing minimum level of provision they'd be happy enough to use.

posted by JonD [177 posts]
13th October 2012 - 18:37

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I think cycle training should be compulsory for all drivers, with the only exception being the disabled. I'd make this requirement retrospective so existing licence holders would need to complete cycle training also and within a set time period. I'd also require all vehicle drivers to complete approved motorcycle training, again with the system being retrospective and with the only exceptions being for disabled drivers. Any driver failing to complete the cycle and motorcycle training within the set time would lose their licence.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2128 posts]
13th October 2012 - 19:17

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I disagree - I'm with the good Dr on this one. I ride to work, with my family and for sport and pointing to Dutch style paths wouldn't be appealing for all these purposes.

City Centres are not generally used for sport except on closed roads or off road. With that exception the Dutch use their cycle network for all those purposes and more. Why wouldn't you use them? They are being designed to be faster, safer and more direct for cyclists (while recognising that their standards have improved and not everywhere meets their latest standards).

posted by Dave42W [27 posts]
13th October 2012 - 20:55

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It also rankles when Holland is referenced all the time - yes it has a great infrastructure but its a tiny country with little in common to the UK and Amsterdam is no London.

From Wikipedia Netherlands is the 24th most densely populated country and the UK is the 52nd. So small but crowded.

Also from wikipedia:

Even though the Netherlands is so densely populated; there are no cities with a population over 1 million in the Netherlands. Instead 'four big cities' as they are called (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) can in many ways be regarded as a single metropolitan area, the Randstad ('rim or edge city') with about 7 million inhabitants around an agricultural 'green heart' (het Groene Hart).

7 million is not so different to 8 million.

Oh except that they have something like 30% of all journeys being by bike. That must cover a pretty wide range of commuting, family, sport etc.

posted by Dave42W [27 posts]
13th October 2012 - 21:31

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I have to agree with The Hatter. I have no experience of the Dutch system, but those people I do know that have say that the system tends towards the lowest common denominator (I.e. if there is a slow person on the track it slows everyone down) making it far from ideal where you have people who are trying to speedily commute or actively take part in sport, and where you have families and recreational users.

I think the compulsory cycling test in a densely urbanised area would help. As I think that drivers don't understand. I equally think that much of the problem stems from cyclists being unaware of what it is like to be a driver too. I also feel that the cyclists most likely to wind up drivers are probably those most vulnerable. I am going to go out on a limb here, but slow cyclists whom never look over their shoulder are predominantly girls whose bike handling skills let them down. Having some sort of urban proficiency test is also key. But I see in London that there are attempts to provide this.

I also agree with the high visibility point. Wearing ridiculous colours does not help. Motor cyclists know this. Why is it any different for a bicycle? It does just give the motorists a stick to beat us with. What is more important is being aware of when a motorist is unlikely to see you. Cars pulling out of junctions turning against traffic tends to be one in particular. The habit in North London (practised in Africa in particular it would seem) is to stop traffic with your car first before making the manoeuvre. Often done without ever looking for a cyclist.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1079 posts]
14th October 2012 - 2:39

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To go back to the title of the article, I was riding out on a wide country road yesterday, white line separation when a passenger in a car passing the opposite way gave me the finger. Why the aggression?

I do believe there is not enough focus on educating drivers on how to safely handle slower moving road users.

posted by kitkat [189 posts]
14th October 2012 - 8:42

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Quote:
I disagree - I'm with the good Dr on this one. I ride to work, with my family and for sport and pointing to Dutch style paths wouldn't be appealing for all these purposes.

It also rankles when Holland is referenced all the time - yes it has a great infrastructure but its a tiny country with little in common to the UK and Amsterdam is no London.

Dutch style paths would be perfect for riding to work, riding with family and riding for sport, that is the key to their success. It is a shame that misunderstanding of the Dutch approach is so widespread in the UK. It is a mistake to suggest that there is no one infrastructure solution which is perfect (as far as anything can be perfect) for all cyclists because this infrastructure has been built in The Netherlands already. Unless one has a bizarre ideological attachement to always cycling amongst motor vehicles that is.

There is nothing so unique about The Netherlands that their approach could not be applied almost identically here.

posted by mr_colostomy [29 posts]
14th October 2012 - 11:04

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There's a lot of ignorant nonsense written about cycling in the Netherlands by people who have never tried it.

The Dutch have built a fantastic infrastructure. In their urban areas, they have designed routes where cycling will always be more direct and take less time than going by car. Where cycle and motorised traffic cross paths, cycles have priority – reinforced by their strict liability legislation.

Outside urban areas, they have provided wide cycle tracks, usually parallel to main roads, canals or railway lines.

Just as in the UK, you wouldn't expect to make fast progress on a road bike in an urban area. Outside the built up areas, cycle traffic is much lighter and it's possible to press on at speed. However, there may be slower cyclists and just like in the UK, a ring on the bell to warn slower riders is usually sufficient warning.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
14th October 2012 - 13:07

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I have plenty of experience cycling in the Netherlands.

There is absolutely no problem with faster cyclists using their infrastructure. I encountered plenty of 'recreational' cyclists in lycra, travelling at speed, on cycle paths adjacent to major roads. I'm afraid it is a complete myth to say that Dutch infrastructure slows everyone down. It is suitable for everyone; the slow, the old, the young and the fast.

Creating a 'two-tier' system of provision for 'different' kinds of cyclists actively encourages the construction of the rubbish we see on a day-to-day basis in the UK, because it stems from an assumption that 'slow' cyclists don't mind being held up swerving around lamp posts, and stopping behind bus stops, while 'faster' cyclists are content to continue using the road.

This has to stop.

posted by stabiliser [7 posts]
14th October 2012 - 14:46

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"It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example.

This may be just a poor analogy, Vegetarians and cyclist may be one of the same, a minority (deviant in the sociological sense of the word) outgroup. However, treatment of vegetarians vs cyclist by a socially dominant group will be different,the following factors could all play a part.

1. Competition for a resource(s).

2. Proximity.

3. Perception of a goal impediment.

4. Perception of personal and others safety/vulnerability & responsibility for personal choice.

Any outgroup will therefore come into conflict to a lesser or greater degree with a dominant cultural norm dependent on these and other factors such as awareness.

I would agree that if awareness is an issue then

"Compulsory cycling as part of driver training would be an ideal solution."

Yet being aware does not always modify behaviour to a socially significant level or for those who would benefit most from the greater awareness. A prime candidate as an example could be the five a day campaign or should that now be seven following recent research.

THE ONLY WAY IS BIKE

posted by lushmiester [156 posts]
14th October 2012 - 16:46

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Quote:
He has looked at reasons why motorists might display aggression towards cyclists, including minority social status and perhaps 'infantile' cycling.

"But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience," said Dr Walker.

"It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example.

He talks about ordinary human behaviour as if it's quantum physics (reasons for aggression being 'unknown'). If you talk to people, with a bit of imagination and empathy, you might understand some of the variety of reasons people in cars express aggression towards people on bikes. For instance, variations of 'I'm driving my expensive car and here's some little jerk on a bit of cheap junk taking up space on the road I've paid for'. Perceived variation in social class, perceived difference in degree of rights with an associated moral superiority if you want to put it into jargon to make yourself and what you're saying sound more important.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, each group is a tribe, with tribal hostilities. A primitive part of the brain wants war. This part of the brain simplifies, sees all cyclists as the same and wants to stomp on them. Some people are closer to, and more inflenced by, the primitive parts of the brain. Some appear not to have developed much of the more advanced regions of the cortex, and all they can do is issue ape grunts like 'you don't pay no road tax you shouldn't be here roads are for cars'. One we had today was 'f****ng ride in single file' when three of us were overtaking another cyclist.

There are obviously many personal factors which magnify aggression in any given situation. A build up of frustration from previous events, from life in general, right down to what happened at the last two sets of lights. The next cyclist you see doing something irritating gets the outcome of the build-up. They are a 'legitimate' target, they've been the cause of annoyance so many times before.

Quote:
He says: "the visibility of riders depends very heavily on the background they happen to be passing at any given moment: if you’re riding in front of a white house it’s far better to wear black than so-called ‘high-visibility’ gear.

"To a psychologist, it's pretty obvious that visual contrast between figure and ground, rather than the rider’s clothes per se, is what will matter. But this seems to be a difficult message for wider audiences to swallow – they won't let go of the idea that ‘high-visibility’ clothing is always the best thing.

It doesn't take a psychologist to realise the obviousness of a contrast between figure and ground is more visible than white-on-white or whatever. And how does he know that 'wider audiences' find it difficult to swallow that high vis clothing isn't always the best thing? That sounds like an unscientific generalisation borne of an unfounded, prejudiced assumption. It is also vaguely insulting: if they didn't already know, then as soon as you pointed it out to anyone that contrasting clothing stands out more than clothing of a similar colour to the background, they are going to get it. Saying that they don't or won't is like saying most people are stupid, whereas 'psychologists' know, they are the superior tribe.

Anyway, higher visibility clothing, whether he means trade team tops or fluo vests, are going to be more visible most of the time than, say, grey and black, or camo outfits, because they DO contrast with more backgrounds than dull clothes. Most backgrounds are on the dull side most of the time. We are not cycling against a background of fluo yellow, or even white houses, for much of the time.

There's so much wrong with this article. The analogy with vegatarians is another example. Veggies are not perceived to be infringing on people in/on their own property (i.e their vehicles - getting in their way, getting away with things drivers would get fined for (red lights etc), freeloading on 'their' roads, startling them, going faster than them in traffic etc etc.

posted by bikeylikey [161 posts]
14th October 2012 - 18:03

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This is very scary - i live close to Clipstone - to think that that deranged and lethal idiot is still driving round where i ride my bike is deeply worrying. Sad

Fully agree with bikeylikely, especially re hi-viz.

As to why they do it, I would have thought a key reason is people are happy to do things when in a car they wouldn't dream of doing to someone face to face - just like people posting rude or aggressive stuff on line, the distance / insulation / anonymity makes or allows people to behave badly because they think they can. (Another analogy might be that it's easy to shoot someone with a gun from a distance than stab someone - I've not tried it but you get the idea).

Pastaman

posted by pastaman [208 posts]
14th October 2012 - 21:01

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and with the only exceptions being for disabled drivers.

Why discriminate against the disabled? There are bikes to fit all shapes and sizes, odds are if you can drive a car then there's probably a bike design you can ride.

It'll all be computer controlled cars in a decade or two anyway!

posted by kie7077 [423 posts]
14th October 2012 - 21:59

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Colin Peyresourde wrote:

I also agree with the high visibility point. Wearing ridiculous colours does not help. Motor cyclists know this. Why is it any different for a bicycle? It does just give the motorists a stick to beat us with. What is more important is being aware of when a motorist is unlikely to see you. Cars pulling out of junctions turning against traffic tends to be one in particular. The habit in North London (practised in Africa in particular it would seem) is to stop traffic with your car first before making the manoeuvre. Often done without ever looking for a cyclist.

Seeing some cyclists ride in the dark on a dark bike dressed all in black and with no lights or pathetic lights, I'd have to disagree, And as for motorbikers, they are by far the most likely to die on the roads.

Also motobikers have a couple of things going for them which cyclists don't have, speed - they can ride down the middle of the road, further out of harms way (of junctions) and they typically have far better lights.

posted by kie7077 [423 posts]
14th October 2012 - 22:10

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Luhmiester wrote: "However, treatment of vegetarians vs cyclist by a socially dominant group will be different,the following factors could all play a part.

1. Competition for a resource(s)."

I'm pretty sure that whoever it was who beat me to the last decent steak in the butcher's yesterday afternoon wasn't a vegetarian Thinking

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7899 posts]
15th October 2012 - 0:31

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Blimey, this debate's getting a bit polarised, isn't it?

I don't think Ian is saying "don't wear hi-hiz", but that we need be wary of any outwardly easy solution to road safety that may not be particularly effective and transfers blame to the victim of the accident for not using it. See also helmets...

We invited him to speak at Bristol Cycle Festival this year and his talk is available to listen to and download here; it's well worth listening to in full.

http://info89693.podomatic.com/entry/2012-07-21T21_02_04-07_00

posted by Mr Agreeable [130 posts]
15th October 2012 - 9:20

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'Perception of a goal impediment' says Lushmeister. That's hit the ball on the head for most encounters with dangerous drivers. Two of us were passed quickly on a muddy lane yesterday by one of those crap ling wheelbased 4x4 that plasterers use ( the sad ones that say Animal or Trojan down the side) endangering the woman with her dog approaching on the right verge. She apologised to us as he pulled into his farm drive just two doors up. Just amazingly selfish - risking 4 lives (including the dog) just to get home at pace.

The other incident yesterday is on the rise and more disturbing. 4 of us in a rural village well within the white line and along comes a gitpanzer - sorry BMW X5 - and actually crosses the white line to pretend to side- swipe us. The driver knew what he as doing - he was smiling as he did it.

The news story on the site today about the deliberate attack needs to be pushed up the news somehow. There are drivers out there who've realised that with no witnesses, they have the opportunity to main or kill single cyclists, and get away with it.

Depressingly it's the lovely country lanes where you are most at risk

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1028 posts]
15th October 2012 - 11:13

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Simples ..

Many drivers are just lazy, selfish, thick ..

Controversial comment maybe but I have to say thats my general impression and I ride most days ..

Mind you, Wton is full of lazy, selfish, thick .... Smile

Me, Myself and I

posted by phax71 [299 posts]
15th October 2012 - 13:23

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Dave42W wrote:

It also rankles when Holland is referenced all the time - yes it has a great infrastructure but its a tiny country with little in common to the UK and Amsterdam is no London.

From Wikipedia Netherlands is the 24th most densely populated country and the UK is the 52nd. So small but crowded.

Also from wikipedia:

Even though the Netherlands is so densely populated; there are no cities with a population over 1 million in the Netherlands. Instead 'four big cities' as they are called (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) can in many ways be regarded as a single metropolitan area, the Randstad ('rim or edge city') with about 7 million inhabitants around an agricultural 'green heart' (het Groene Hart).

7 million is not so different to 8 million.

Oh except that they have something like 30% of all journeys being by bike. That must cover a pretty wide range of commuting, family, sport etc.

The population of Metropolitan London is in the region of 12-14 million, which is rather more than the 7-8 million of Amsterdam and the various other built-up areas around it.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2128 posts]
15th October 2012 - 14:59

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It should be remembered that the drivers who are aggressive towards cyclists are just as likely to be aggressive and stupid towards other car drivers. When I've been on my bike on country roads around Cambridge recently I've had nothing but good behaviour from car drivers, including one who waited patiently while I went down a winding lane, even when I waved him/her through they waited for a better moment to overtake me. Everyone gives me enough space as far as I'm concerned although they rarely go over the white line in the middle of the road even when the other way is clear.

The only bad behaviour I've experienced came on Sat. on more or less the same road when, while driving, an idiot shot across a crossroads very close in front of me when I had priority and it maybe saved him 1 or 2 secs. before the road was clear. Utterly pointless! Any mistake on his/her part would have led to an accident.

As for vegetarians 25/30 years ago they were the subject of plenty of jokes in the media when they were about 5% or so of the population, roughly the same as regular cyclists are now, but now they are about 20% that's more or less stopped. The same goes for cycling around Cambridge where the level is probably about 20% or so and I think the problem is less than it used to be, although you still have to watch out for taxis. Elsewhere where cycling is less common that may not be the case yet.

posted by Alan Tullett [1428 posts]
15th October 2012 - 20:37

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MercuryOne wrote:
a gitpanzer - sorry BMW X5

"The BMW X5, The 4x4 for those that know 4xf*ck all about driving..."

posted by farrell [1289 posts]
16th October 2012 - 10:52

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To us at work its called "red mist" when all the driver sees is whats in front of his / her bumper and is oblivious to all others. If its another car in front or in the way "the horn gets blasted", if its a cyclist "its verbals and whatever else".

We come across it all the time and unfortunatley it occurs all over the world, not just this country. Its a mentality that cannot be removed by extensive training or testing as we get drivers who are nigh on perfect 99.99999 etc etc % of the time but something triggers this aggression in driving, mannerisms and verbals and all hell breaks loose.

Unfortunatley we get the usual idiots who think its part and parcel of driving and will never learn or want to change.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it. Gaius Julius Caesar.

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posted by stumps [2664 posts]
16th October 2012 - 18:50

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